The White House is still formally supporting Sen. Blanche Lincoln's re-election bid as the Arkansas Democratic primary approaches its runoff vote on Tuesday. But over the past few weeks, as the incumbent senator's prospects for holding onto the seat have became more unsettled, the president and his team have been noticeably silent about the race.
The president's political shop can read both polls and tea leaves. And while the official policy is to back incumbents, there is clear shoulder-shrugging resignation that Lt. Gov. Bill Halter will emerge Tuesday as the party's candidate in the fall.
Aides won't go there on record, or even on background. But they don't correct the assertion that they've stepped back from the race. The evidence is obvious. Save a perfunctory, donate-to-Blanche-email signed on June 2 by Vice President Joseph Biden, the type of formal campaigning that team Obama rolled out prior to the first vote (with radio ads and robocalls) has been completely non-existent.
"I haven't seen or heard of anything," said a source working on the ground in Arkansas. "She's using him in ads, etc., but we haven't seen anything from the White House itself."
There are limits to the White House's revised approach. Neither the president nor his team, for example, has reached out to the Halter campaign, according to the campaign's manager, Carol Butler.
"You would have to ask the White House" as to why they've scaled back their engagement in the race, Butler said, in an interview with the Huffington Post on Sunday. "I would hope they would be comfortable given that most of the public polling now indicates that [Halter] is a stronger general election candidate against the Republican, [Congressman John] Boozman."
Polling shows Halter better positioned against Boozman. He lost the first contest against Lincoln by a scant two percentage points. But by holding the Senator under 50 percent of the vote he pushed the election into a runoff, in the process drawing more attention -- locally and nationally -- to his candidacy.
The key, in the end, seems likely to be the ability of each campaign to get voters to the polls. And herein could be Halter's primary advantage. Endorsed by two major labor unions and progressive activist organizations, the conventional wisdom holds that his backers will be more compelled to vote on Tuesday than Lincoln's. Certainly they will be organized, with both the AFL-CIO and SEIU sending officials down to the state to help with Get Out The Vote efforts.
All of which has led Lincoln's campaign to argue that the union community was essentially stealing the election from Arkansan's hands. Usually the sought-after vote in Democratic primaries -- Lincoln actually filled out a questionnaire asking for the AFL-CIO's support in this election -- labor has been cast as the enemy. (Arkansas, it should be noted, has one of the smallest unionized work forces in the country).
"Senator Lincoln has enjoyed the backing of corporate special interests ... including two -- Americans for Job Security and something called Arkansans for Common Sense -- who absolutely refuse to disclose who their backers are. So there has been a lot of special interest involvement helping her," Butler said in response to Lincoln's charge. "We are proud to have the backing of working men and women this entire campaign is about working Arkansas. Senator Lincoln happily embraced the support of labor unions when they were supporting her [in 2004]."